Last week Julia showed me a book called small Gold Medal, which is a collection of short commissioned texts including “Mr Brown, Mr Chalmers, Mr Frick and Mr Caesar” by Simon Starling. I want to add Mr Starling as one of these misters.

About eight years ago Mr Starling wrote about Mr Brown who finds tiny body parts which at first might be human body parts to us readers on the frosty pavement outside the butcher’s shop, but which turn out to be made of creamy-white ivory and which he puts in an empty plastic butcher’s bag anyway and keeps in his fridge until the evening, which he spends piecing and gluing the parts back together and thinking about Mr Chalmers, a museum collector who as a boy had carved a small flat relief of the head of the Roman Emperor Mr Caesar, and about Mr Frick, who turned raw steel into gilt-framed masterpieces in the nineteenth century, and about the thieves who had burgled the museum in the first place earlier that day and dropped the broken limbs as they escaped, and imagining Mr Chalmers flattened but unharmed in a childhood accident like his relief of Mr Caesar, and who in the morning begins to write the story I read as a child called Flat Stanley.

In the red and blue annotations above I’ve indicated some of the trace relations at work in the story, which I tried to draw attention to in the text before I annotated it by causing confusion among the traces (who, which, -ing) and the things they refer back to (Mr Chalmer, the evening, the body parts…).

The story continually exploits its linear narrative – the order in which we come across words and events – in a way that I think prepares me for the jolt at the end, when Mr Brown comes to write a children’s story I recognize as having been written thirty years earlier. An example of this disrupted narrative is on page one:

…this is gruesome. There is unexpectedly a severed arm on the pavement in the middle of the day and we’ve just been thinking about butchers and chops.

…no it’s OK now, they are carved in ivory and are not real but delicate.

…but now he’s putting assorted body parts into a bag from the butcher’s, and this is a macabre thing to do, but done politely.

…his mind and feet race home together, and when he gets there he puts the bag of body parts in the fridge along with his lamb chops, though they’re made of ivory.

This nesting of fictions within the story anticipates the structural nesting of authorial realities that appears at the end and consequently causes the entire text to shift.

The story is only nine pages long. Page six ends with: “The next morning Mr Brown got up early, placed the little ivory figure of ‘long arms and short legs’ on the table next to his typewriter, and started to write …

Then the following (final) three pages look like facsimile reproductions of an original copy of Flat Stanley: yellowing pages reproduced nice and flat onto the white paper of the book in my hand. The story proper starts on page one, and the excerpt from the internal Flat Stanley story starts on page seven. The page numbers on the facsimile correlate so that they continue uninterrupted, with number ‘7’ onwards appearing on a yellowed background. The typeset and layout remain approximately identical across the two stories, as though the latter were inset seamlessly into the former, only with yellowed pigment slipped underneath the words.

A note at the end of Starling’s story states that Jeff Brown wrote Flat Stanley in 1971, and it was published by Puffin Books, England, in the same year. Although the Chalmers Bequest Gallery, Stoke Newington, really was burgled in January 1971, “[t]he other events in this story are fictional”.

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